Revisiting a classic: The Maltese Falcon


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Last night, I watched John Huston’s film noir classic The Maltese Falcon again after a gap of more than 10 years. When I first watched it during my initial period of “film self-education”, perhaps I was in a rush or I didn’t have enough context at the time; either way, I realized I could remember virtually nothing about this movie. And so, I decided to revisit it. In the intervening years, I have watched 9 other Bogart classics and he has become one of my all-time favourite leading men from the B&W era. So, to see him on screen again was like visiting an old friend and I settled back to enjoy the experience.

As the credits rolled up at the start, I was thrilled to see the names of 3 beloved character actors – Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet and Ward Bond. As I said, I remembered almost nothing from my first viewing all those years ago and was pleasantly surprised to see the names of these actors who have enlivened some of my favourite films.

Indeed, the most enjoyable aspect of The Maltese Falcon the second time around was watching the story take shape around these beautifully realized characters. This film could easily have been a stage play, given that it really revolves around just 4-5 people who dominate most of the screen time:

At the centre of it all is hard-boiled detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. This was the movie that catapulted Bogart out of playing gangster roles into leading man status. A year later, he and Ingrid Bergman made sparks fly in Casablanca and the rest, as they say, is history. In the mould of all noir film characters, Sam Spade comes in many shades of grey. One can’t be sure if he is heartless or whether the tough exterior is just for show. One of the first things he does after his partner is killed is to have all the signage in his office changed to remove his late partner’s name…not a shred of sentimentality there. Not just that, he’s had an affair with his partner’s wife, but now is no longer interested in her, just when her husband’s death could have paved the way for an open relationship. On the other hand, his professional integrity cannot be bought or compromised, which becomes amply clear in the closing minutes of the story, when he chooses justice over (possible) love and hands over the femme fatale to the cops. Bogart’s great asset is his face; he was not a handsome man and his head seemed too big for his physique, but he learned to use his facial expressions as a way to amplify his character and he could really project an air of menace on-screen with his look and expressions.

The femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy is played by Mary Astor in her best known screen role. I don’t think I’ve seen a more pathological liar on-screen, someone who just finds it impossible to say the truth, who only looks out for herself. She certainly has the audience fooled through the early part of the film playing the helpless lady in distress until Sam Spade peels back the lies and deception layer by layer, like onion skin. She ends up in a strange relationship with Spade and right until the end, it was impossible for me to figure out if her feelings for him were genuine. As she confessed at one point to Spade, perhaps even she no longer knows whether what she thinks and says is real or just playacting. Although there are other villains in the film, she was the one I really disliked and I hoped against hope that her character would not be redeemed to give the movie a happy ending. And indeed, in spite of her entreaties at the end, Spade holds firm and hands her over to the law.

Peter Lorre plays Joel Cairo (I love this name!), the assistant to the main villain. Lorre first shot to fame as the child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s German classic M, then moved to Hollywood and played interesting characters in films like Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He is instantly recognizable because of his nasal, whiny voice and bulgy eyes; it became such a trademark that Warner Bros. later created a mad scientist character in his likeness called Dr. Lorre for their Looney Tunes cartoon shows. Because of his looks, he ends up playing slimy, unlikable characters and the audience always gets great joy when he inevitably gets roughed up by the hero or the cops!

Sidney Greenstreet is the main villain, Kasper Gutman; he’s the man who has been obsessed with the Maltese falcon (a relic from the Crusades that is supposedly made of gold and encrusted with jewels) and has been on its trail for the past 17 years. Unlike Mary Astor’s character, Mr. Gutman is quite open about his pursuit of this treasure and willing to pay a fair price to get hold of it. I was amazed to read later that this was Greenstreet’s first screen appearance at the age of 61 after a decades-long career on the stage. He went on to appear alongside both Bogart and Lorre in Casablanca a year later and brought his immense physical presence (he weighed nearly 300 lbs) and affected English accent to many memorable roles during his brief film career from 1941-49. In fact, the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki was code-named “fat man” after the nickname of his character in this movie.

I was also highly entertained by the fat man’s gun-for-hire, Wilmer who is constantly at the receiving end of Sam Spade’s verbal and physical barbs. The actor Elisha Cook Jr. does an amazing job of playing a man who is wound up so tight, he has tears in his eyes at one point from the unbearable rage he feels towards Spade.

Another notable aspect of this movie is the camera work. This was John Huston’s first film as director (after several years as a script writer) and he immediately clicked with cinematographer Arthur Edeson. The film is uses interesting camera angles to emphasize relationships between characters (the early couch scene between Bogart and Astor) or the personality of an individual (especially Sydney Greenstreet as he recounts the history of the falcon), zoom shots during dramatic moments and the trademark light-and-shadows of film noir.

There’s a lot packed into a 100 minute running time; I remember noting that so much had happened in just the first 15 minutes.

I definitely see myself revisiting other classic films in due course, given how much I enjoyed this experience.

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